'War Horse' puppeteers share technical secrets from the West End show

Natasha Ho

Junior reporters learned how the equine star of the award-winning stage production, based on Michael Morpurgo's book, is brought to life

Natasha Ho |

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To make the horse prance right, the puppeteers need to be coordinated.

War Horse, the award-winning stage production that has been seen by more than 8 million people worldwide, is finally making its debut in Hong Kong in May.

Adapted from the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, the play follows the journey of a young horse named Joey, as he is sent from a farm in England to the battlefield in France at the outbreak of the first world war.

Perhaps the most special thing about this play is its technical brilliance. Joey is brought to life on stage with the help of a giant mechanical puppet, and three talented puppeteers: Shaun McKee, Michael Taibi and Derek Arnold.

Young Post junior reporters had the opportunity to speak to the trio, as well as take part in a workshop to learn more about the art of theatre puppetry.

Having worked on War Horse for several years, McKee, Taibi and Arnold know all the ins and outs of Joey. They all agree that the best thing about working with a puppet is the unlimited possibilities of what you can make it do.

“I just love being able to do everything,” said McKee. “To suddenly make [the puppet] jump and float in the air as though it was on the moon. That’s not something humans are normally able to do.”

Taibi added: “I love when you can make a puppet jump and then look to the audience and do the thumbs-up sign while floating in the air. It’s hilarious and you can’t do that as humans.”

With the show opening in just a few weeks, the puppeteers are excited for Hong Kong audiences to see Joey the horse in action.
Photo: Dickson Lee/SCMP

Each of the puppeteers is responsible for operating a different part of Joey’s body, but they need to work in unison to make his movements look natural. Arnold, who controls Joey’s back legs, said it all comes down to cooperation.

“When Joey does something, his back legs move first, and then the front legs and the head, so we all have to think half a second ahead of each other. Therefore we are constantly connecting with each other,” he said. “Also, because I have my back to wherever Joey is going, it’s Michael’s responsibility to make sure I don’t bump into something,” said McKee. “So we have this trust, and we know we are looking after each other.”

After learning about what it takes to be a puppeteer, it was time to try it for ourselves. First, we needed to make a puppet. The real Joey is made of steel, leather and cables, but we made do with brown paper and tape. We scrunched up one piece of paper to make the head and front legs, and another to make the body and back legs. We then added creases in certain places to give our puppets more detail.

Creating the puppet was the easy part; bringing it to life was a lot more challenging. Being able to control each part of the puppet at the same time and keep them all in sync takes both skill and concentration. And yet, somehow, McKee, Taibi and Arnold manage to make it look effortless. When the show opens next month, audiences will be blown away.

War Horse runs from May 10 until June 2 at Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

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